The Abruzzi

The Cuisine

Amongst the Italian regions, Abruzzi is probably the one which best maintains a culinary art independent of outside influences and whose more characteristic products better retain its traditions, rites, mysteries and the magic of its culture. The reason for this is, so to say, orographic: deriving from the harshness of the chains of mountains which have always kept the land of the great Latin poet Ovid, still very much present in Abruzzi culture, separate from the world surrounding it. The intensity with which the area upheld and experienced (and, in part, still does) the traditions of magic and superstition, of curses and sensual pantheism are excellently set out in the works of Gabriele D'Annunzio, in one respect citizen of the world and in another, interpreter of the deep and obscure culture of his land, the Abruzzi. We cite in particular the most popular of the D’Annunzio dramas, La figlia di Jorio (Jorio’s daughter) (1904), when the protagonist, Mila di Codro, known publicly to be a bewitcher and lacking in morals, escapes from the enraged reapers by taking refuge in Lazaro di Rojo’s house, who, for her, had been injured by a rival. Aligi, Lazaro’s son, sees her guardian angel weeping behind her and goes with her up into the mountains, protecting and respecting her. But Lazaro arrives, looking for Mila and Aligi kills him. Parricide carried a terrible punishment, but Mila assumes responsibility for the crime and faces death fearlessly. A timeless drama and which, therefore, truly represents the ancient spirit which runs through this land. Today it is certainly the case that with the construction of the motorways and the easing of all the channels of communication, the thousand year old isolation of the region has come to an end: but the traditions, memories and the culture of the people Abruzzi are still alive and recognizable, surviving the industrialisation and the arrival of tourism. One can see traces of religious or secular rites which fill the calendars of the towns and villages, in the tenacious survival of a thousand dialects despite the homogenising influence of television, in the preservation of the truly customary foodstuffs not only at table but in the farms and in the cheese and the craftsmen’s workshops where the raw materials destined to become the main elements of the food table are refined. Although subject to inevitable up-dating, many of the recipes arise from the experiences of past generations, while the methods of preparation and preservation of the foods remain, at family level, substantially faithful to tradition. Abruzzi cuisine, due to its late breakaway from isolation, has certainly developed a benefit worthy of appreciation, and here we are referring to the authenticity of the ingredients and of all the typical products which is guaranteed, more than anywhere else, by the Adriatic on the one side and by the heights of the Gran Sasso on the other.
Originally, they were only poor types of ingredient. For many centuries, the economy of the region was hardly enough to ensure survival: neither agriculture, poorly rewarded on the upper Apennines, or sheep farming (an activity described by the Vate (the Poet, d’Annunzio) in the verse «Pastori e' tempo di migrare» - ‘Shepherds, it is time to move to new pastures’ - gave a good income. On the other hand, the social composition of the population of the Abruzzi was for many centuries of very modest extraction, both from the economic and cultural points of view.
No large families of local nobility, no castles with sumptuous banquets, no stately traditions and, in fact, the gastronomy of the Abruzzi, as well as that of the Molise region make no appearance in the famous treatises which, century after century, trace the history of Italian cuisine; an example on its own which certainly derives from the fact that the cuisine of these regions had no means of crossing the borders. The custom of the people of Abruzzi in celebrating solemn occasions with those never ending meals called panarde was born from poverty: the farmers of Abruzzi would take advantage of these to compensate for lengthy periods of fasting. A respectable wedding lunch could have no less than twenty courses: the traditional lunch offered by the guest of importance could even reach thirty courses and those who were not able to cope with such opulence, withdrawing in front of the umpteenth serving, risked offending irreparably the person who had organised the Pantagruelian array of food. Things have changed a great deal in recent times: having been admitted to the table of well-being, the Abruzzi people have added to their virtues that of eating with frugality, invoked by the other great writer of this land, Ignazio Silone. The panarde are now only organised for folkloristic purposes, as are the processions of wax candles and the giostre del Saracino. The important tradition remains, however, of a series of characteristic products which belong to the history and culture of the region, from which, in fact, have descended illustrious lines of cooks which have brought their art into the world: on the transatlantic cruise ships, in luxury hotels, in the great families, these «creative minds» were a guarantee of precision and originality. In this way, the Abruzzi restaurants in cities like Rome and Milan have earned a secure place: their formula of almost always offering a menù chiuso (lots of courses, a little of everything) has conquered the public’s taste with spicy and authentic flavours and the abundance of the «accessories» (desserts, liqueurs, digestives). Naturally, today the dishes on offer to a more suburban clientele and not strictly local folk, outside the region itself, have lost part of their original strength and aggression: for example, the chilli pepper, a constant presence in all Abruzzi recipes, is used with a lighter touch. Traditionally, in Abruzzi cuisine it tends to be a main element which is even a little too aggressive and finds moments of glory in the gastronomic festivals. With this in mind, the chefs’ festival at Sangro is exemplary and the second Sunday of October reunites, at Villa Santa Maria, people from all around the world devoted to the art of the hob; restaurants of great prestige display, in the special stands lined up along the main street, the delicacies included in their menus.
Festivals dedicated to the typical products of the region take place all over the region: Vittorio, in the Peligna Valley dedicates its festival to grapes and wine. The date, which is variable, is a Sunday in October. Pollutri, a well populated town in the province of Chieti, the 5th and 6th December has on its program an old festival for the celebration of broad beans: nine large cauldrons filled with this highly prized vegetable boil all night long in the streets of the town. In the province of Pescara, Raiano celebrates on the first Sunday of June the product which sustains the local economy, and that is cherries; Carsoli, on the border between Abruzzi and Lazio, does the same with sweet chestnuts on the first Sunday of October; Capistrello, in the Marsica area, has a festival in the summer in the honour of strawberries; Macchia da Sole, a place of milk and shepherds in the province of Teramo, dedicates its festival to pecorino cheese; Basciano, in the same province, attracts crowds of visitors on the second Sunday in August in the name of its prosciutto ham. Remaining in the area around Teramo, at Arsita, the festival reserved a place in its calendar in September is quite singular: it celebrates the coatto, a typical dish prepared by boiling a leg of mutton at length. But the list of foods honoured by special festivals is still long: it includes the ciambella – a ring-shaped cake - (Goriano Sicoli), the prawns and trout (Popoli), wine (Miglianico e Succiano), chick peas (Navelli), mutton (San Vincenzo Valle Roveto), porchetta - roast pig - (Fresagrandinaria), the sagne a tacconi (Roio del Sangro), the spiedino - kebab - (Montereale and Martinsicuro), the cicerchia – a typical kind of cake - (Castelvecchio Carvisio), Pelagic fish (Giulianova) and honey (Tornareccio).
Saffron is a vegetable aroma which has its Italian birthplace in Abruzzi, but strangely enough, is not used at all in the local cuisine. A highly prized quality of saffron, with a very distinct flavour, is produced in the province of Aquila and is exported because it cannot be used in its natural state, and is then refined and mixed with other types of a lesser quality. In Abruzzi, there are no establishments adapt for carrying out this processing, and so the saffron originating in the mountains of the Abruzzi is used for flavouring Milanese risottos, Spanish paellas and French bouillabaisses. The only local dish in which saffron is used is the «scapece» from Vasto, marinated fish which is cut into pieces and fried and which is preserved in special wooden vats, passed down in the families from generation to generation.
The most well known recipe of Abruzzi cuisine is a pasta dish, naturally home-made, which is prepared by use of a special utensil, or rather an “instrument”: the chitarra (the guitar).The name derives from the fact that it is, in fact, an instrument with strings: a rectangular frame of beechwood made by artisans who string a number of extremely thin wires on it, at a distance of one millimetre from each other. The pasta mixture of eggs and flour, having been worked at length, is rolled out into pieces which are called «pe'ttole», which are then, one at a time, put onto the chitarra. Pressing down over the layer of pasta with the rolling pin, the wires of the chitarra cut the pasta into the thin, typically square shaped strips which preserve the old name of «maccheroni» (‘macaroni’), the true expression is, in fact, «maccheroni alla chitarra». Hard, elastic, of an attractive golden colour and strong and unbreakable when being cooked, these are the macaroni which are now ready to be dressed in the most typical way: quite a thick, tomatoey meat sauce made more substantial by smoked pancetta (Italian spiced bacon), grated spicy pecorino cheese and the ever-present chilli pepper.
An alternative dressing is a meat sauce made from lamb and pork. Other traditional Abruzzi pasta dishes are the «maccheroni al ceppo» and «alla molinara», also known as «strangolapreti», which are prepared with a precise, very tricky technique making a hole in a lump of pasta and extracting from it using a series of rapid and decisive movements, one single very long string (about fifty metres long). This string is then rolled up together into an orderly bundle and, while it is being boiled, each thin string remains incredibly firm without breaking or sticking to others.
The technique for the production of this pasta, having passed from an artisan phase to an industrial one, has lead to the development in the region of a series of the most modern establishments which compete with the most famous pasta manufacturers of Naples. A secret of their excellent products is the durum wheat flour which is used, and the fact that, during the phase of mechanical processing, the old home-made, manual methods are always kept in mind. Today, the pasta produced is distributed to many parts of Italy and this permits the reproduction of dishes which, if they are not exactly the same as the local ones, then they certainly get very close.
Another main character of the old Abruzzi food table is an almost legendary minestrone soup, a ritual dish which is called «le virtu'» - ‘the virtues’ – (of which there are seven, the same as the number of the various ingredients) and which unites different kinds of foods in a single dish. According to the canonical recipe, it should include seven dried vegetables leftover from the winter supplies, seven fresh vegetables as offered by the spring season, seven types of meat, seven types of pasta with the addition of a few grains of rice. The whole mixture should cook for seven hours, at the end of which the minestrone soup would finally be ready! The «virtues» to which the name refers are those which are traditionally requested of the housewife: a May Day dish, this soup is associated with propitiator and pagan rites which go back many centuries; today it is less abounding, but still rich and flavoursome.
Amongst the meat dishes, apart from porchetta (roast pig), some of the simple and coarse shepherd recipes should at least be mentioned. They are ancient, even thousands of years old, and based on the products of sheep-rearing, which has sustained the economy of the region, along with agriculture, up until not many decades ago. Ovine meat is the dominating element: lamb, mutton and kid are cooked in all kinds of different ways throughout the Abruzzi.
The shepherds cooked lamb a «catturo», that is, in a large cooper cauldron suspended by a chain from an iron tripod erected out in the open. The meat is cut into pieces and put together with oil, lard, parsley, sage, onion, chilli pepper and is cooked of a slow fire. This fragrant stew is eaten on large slices of bread. Nowadays, it is certainly difficult to come across lamb made a «catturo», it is easier to find lamb a «casce e ova» (with ‘cheese and eggs’), gratinated with beaten eggs and cheese, or «all'arrabbiata», sautéed in the pan with a large quantity of chilli pepper. The shepherds of the hollow around Aquila have a method with the kid whereby they "incaporchiano" it, that is, they keep it closed in special wicker containers which forces the animal to remain immobile and, therefore, to get fat quickly. In this way, when the animal is sacrificed, its meat is exceptionally tender.
The innards of the lamb and kid are also used for substantial and very popular dishes. Cut into thin strips, separated into small piles and flavoured with various herbs and spices (the chilli pepper is never lacking), then wrapped up using the intestines of the animal, the innards are cooked with oil, tomato and white wine. With many variations, they are eaten throughout the Abruzzi where they are known as «tuncenelle» (Chieti), «mazzarelle» (Teramo), «marro» (Aquila).
Usually, the pig is never lacking, giving excellent sausages and salamis amongst which there is the «ventricina» sausage, aromatic and spicy. Another exquisite dish is offered by the «posticini», skewers of grilled lamb and pork, often sold along the street in small kiosks. Also typical is the «capra alla neratese» (‘neratese style goat’); cut into pieces, the leg of the animal, after having been immersed in running water, is boiled up with aromatic herbs. The «coniglio alla chietina» (‘rabbit Chieti style’) is baked in the oven after having been stuffed with slices of prosciutto ham, rosemary and knobs of butter; the dish «pollo alla Franceschiello» (‘chicken Franceschiello style’), so called in memory of the King of the Two Sicilies, a lover of hunting, is cooked chicken, cut into pieces to which are added oil, the aromatic vegetables, olives and vegetables preserved in vinegar.
The most appreciated products offered by the land of the Abruzzi are those coming from sheep-rearing, and, above all, the cheeses: scamorze, caciocavalli, and pecorini cheeses leave one with perhaps the most memorable flavours after a trip to Abruzzi, where the gastronomical “discoveries” are numerous, especially in the inland and mountainous areas.
A stay along the coastline, which has had significant promotion for tourism in the last decades, means being able to encounter the flavours of the seafood; pelagic fish, but also shellfish and crustaceans and the extraordinary tiny red mullets known as "agostinelle" which are preferably cooked by throwing them, having just been dipped in flour, into boiling hot oil and eating them immediately. The fish soups are less renowned and here, as in Romagna and the Marche, every locality offers its own version on the theme of the soup of fish from the Adriatic Sea. The two most well known are the one from Vasto and the one from Pescara: the first is the simplest and most homely, and the one from Pescara is more refined and spicy. The fish, while it is cooking, should remain whole – according to the recipe - , and, therefore, care should be taken when intervening with spoons and ladles etc.; another rule is that of keeping the pan ("tiella") covered at all times and bringing it to the table to uncover it under the eyes and the noses of the table companions who are overcome by the strong fragrance of the steam from the soup. At Pescara in particular, but also in all the localities of the coast, there are opportunities to encounter, apart from fresh fish, other foods and dishes of great interest such as the «scrippelle in brodo o al tartufo» (‘crepes in broth or with truffles’), the « mazzarelle d'agnello» (lamb’s offal and intestines cooked in a sauce) whereas, to remain in the sphere of fish, we bring to mind: the «baccala' mollicato», the salted codfish being partially cooked by boiling and then, to finish the cooking, it is sautéed in the pan with the addition of garlic, oil, parsley, oregano and the «coda di rospo al rosmarino» (‘angler fish with rosemary’), a typical dish from the Pescara area: the fish is cut into slices which are then cooked slowly with oil, garlic and rosemary with the addition of some chilli pepper. Other specialities which are enjoyed are the «sole with olives», cooked with small olives cooked with garlic, parsley and lemon juice and the «stuffed red mullets» filled with breadcrumbs, garlic and finely chopped rosemary. It is then enough to go up into the inland parts of the region to discover the beauties of the architecture and landscapes, the proud and dignified nobility, the ancient customs and the civility of every form of life, even the most modest, to make the cuisine and the wines become important moments in this discovery: every city, every town has its own specialities, its flavours passed down over the centuries, preserving their authenticity despite the attempts of industry to diminish and flatten them.
An Abruzzi meal always closes with the desserts which are often with an almond and walnut base: such as the torroni – nougats - (made with chocolate or dried figs), the sugared almonds (i confetti), a celebrated speciality of Sulmona. The «parrozzo», speciality of Pescara, boasts an «adevertisment» thought up and signed by none less than the Vate (Poet) D'Annunzio. It is a cake with a base of flour, butter, eggs, sugar and almonds, covered with chocolate. D'Annunzio was especially fond of it and, being a friend of the cake maker who invented it, he found it a name (which derives from pan rozzo, because it imitates the rounded shape and the colour of the bread of the countryside) with which it was ‘baptised’.